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9+ tips for overdubbing on location

Pretty much anyone recording on a budget will have to contemplate the idea of recording on location. Mike Senior tells you how to make it easier

This excerpt from Recording Secrets for the Small Studio by Mike Senior originally appeared at Audio Undone.

There are a lot of instruments that you may be unable to record within your studio space – the neighbors may complain if drums or electric guitars start thrashing away, while getting things like timpani, grand pianos and church organs up the stairs may be a challenge! And, of course, a lot of budget studios have distinctly dodgy acoustics too. So pretty much anyone doing serious recording on a budget will sometimes have to contemplate the idea of recording on location.

Fortunately, this is easier nowadays than it’s ever been because project-studio equipment is so portable – you can realistically carry an entire overdubbing rig on the train, even if you’re multimicing. And Mark Howard argues that working in different locations is beneficial both commercially and creatively: “For each project I work on, I do an installation with my own gear… I set up, I do the record, and I tear the installation down. It’s a great way to make records, because there are no budgets anymore these days, and like this I don’t have any overheads. You also don’t fall into the same routines with always the same drum set-up in the same place… It allows for a lot of creative accidents to happen, and as a result I’m always discovering new sounds.”

Planning sessions for evenings and weekends can often get you out-of-hours access to office conference rooms, school gymnasiums and churches for free if you ask nicely, and background noise levels may well be lower at those times, too. To get the best results for overdubs on a budget, I’d suggest investing in the best pair of open-backed studio headphones you can afford, because these will give better monitoring fidelity than closedback designs – and you can only record as well as you can hear! Although open-backed cans won’t isolate you from the instrument’s sound in a one-room recording setup, it’s usually possible to listen from outside the door on the end of a headphone extension cable if you want to make critical sound judgments while the musician’s performing.

Here are few more specific tips if you’re considering taking the plunge:

1. Try to check out the recording venue beforehand so you can estimate your gear requirements. Note the positions of power sockets and pace out the distance between your proposed recorder and instrument locations to work out what cables you’ll need. Switch lights on to check for buzzes and have a careful listen for background noise from things like heaters, plumbing, air-conditioning units, and traffic. If you have to coordinate your session with a building’s security staff, confirm opening/closing times and make sure you know where to get/return any necessary keys. Few things can hinder a session more than surly janitors, but if you appear trustworthy and treat them as the important folks they are, you’d be surprised how often they’ll go out of their way to help you.

2. A simple mains-tester plug is a must for checking that the venue’s power supply is correctly wired, as is a residual current device (RCD) or ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) so that no-one gets fried in the event of an electrical mishap.

3. After your reconnaissance mission, draw yourself a quick diagram of the setup you’re going to use, because this makes it much easier to work out all the cables and stands you’re going to need. I find it’s helpful to give separate consideration to power wiring, input-chain wiring, monitoring/foldback/talkback wiring and digital/data wiring – you’re more likely to miss something out if you try to tackle them all at once.

4. If it’s a bit of a trek to the venue, try to build some redundancy into your set-up so that if something flakes out it doesn’t ruin the session. In particular, make sure you’ve got at least one extra cable of every type you’re using, a spare pair of headphones and an extra mic or two if possible.

5. Write yourself a full kit list before you go. The first time you do this it’ll feel like a chore, but trust me: it’ll be worth its weight in gold. Not only will it stop you leaving anything behind after the session, but it’ll also make planning similar jaunts much easier in future.

6. A roll of gaffer tape should always be on the essentials list, but watch that you don’t stick gaffer on anything it can’t cleanly be removed from – at least if you ever fancy recording in that venue again!

7. I always take a small pair of locking pliers and a multi-tool with me on location, because I seem to need at least one of them on every job. A torch regularly comes in handy too.

8. All battery-powered equipment should be given fresh batteries, and you should also carry spares.

9. Old towels/blankets/quilts are tremendously helpful, whether for impromptu acoustic dampening, covering over cable runs or just holding doors open. Although you can rig up quilts with gaffer, I prefer to fix cheap carabiners to them and then use bungee cords to hang them up, because gaffer always seems to lose its grip just when you’re in the middle of a take! (If you really want to kill your singer, then I imagine there are more entertaining methods than smothering them.) A mic stand set up at full height with the boom arm horizontal makes a “T” shape that’s good for hanging blankets over.

When recording on location, a cheap mains tester plug like this one (right) comes in very handy – here it’s showing that the socket’s live and neutral pins have been connected in reverse.

It’s a lot easier to hang up blankets/quilts for recording purposes if you fix little carabiners at strategic points around the edge (pictured right).

Edited excerpt from Recording Secrets for the Small Studio by Mike Senior. © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.

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